The Effort to Transform: Intellectual Legacies of Stuart Hall

I was given the task of introducing Angela Davis at a conference to celebrate Stuart Hall’s legacies that took place in 2014. [1] The task was for me very serious. Two scholars, two activists who had profoundly shaped the space within the academy in which I worked; two scholars, two activists whose energy, wisdom and wit was evident in every word they sent out. I was addressing them both: one who was there to honor the other who was no longer with us. It was a profoundly moving if rather intimidating occasion.

An occasion can be a starting point for a journey. This occasion became a chance to think more about how black feminism and cultural studies explore intellectual labor as political labor.

In one of his best known essays Stuart Hall defends the intellectual project of Cultural Studies as ‘deadly serious’.[2] He had been reflecting on the AIDS crisis. Hall notes that it might seem that Cultural Studies is rather pointless when people are dying. Rather than dismissing this feeling that Cultural Studies does not matter, that it is ‘ephemeral,’ he suggests we allow ourselves to be hit by that feeling. He asks us to know that what we are doing might not transform the world we are in, the world that sentences some to premature death. We might need to be touched by the inadequacy of what we are doing, because what we are doing is inadequate. From the humility acquired from a sense of what we cannot do, we make do. We use the tools we have; we sharpen them by analyzing what is thrown up by an emergency. It is times when there seems no point to Cultural Studies that we need it the most; to engage with how something is being told, a crisis, an emergency, how something comes about, what something is about. We need to work out what is going on where we are, when we are. It is a task and an effort.

Both Angela Davis and Stuart Hall allow us to think of intellectual labor as beyond the confines of the academy, as what we do when are no longer confined; how we make our way into the world by asking questions about how things come to be the way they are. They both give us a sense of what an intellectual can do, when being intellectual is released from a restricted understanding of academic labor, when being an intellectual is not predicated on having time away to reflect, to remove oneself from a situation, but time in that situation. The situation is what requires we give our time; our attention. Stuart Hall’s work was shaped by the painstaking labor of giving worlds the fullness of his attention.

How did I first read come to read Hall? I came to the UK in 1991 to do a PhD in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University. I was reading mainly poststructuralism and psychoanalysis: Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Lacan. It was interesting, of course. I had not read Stuart Hall before then, which is somewhat surprising since we had been taught postcolonial theory in my English degree at Adelaide University. I still remember reading The Empire Writes Back, in which ‘the postcolonial’ seemed to be about how white Australia reflects anxiously on its own whiteness as displacement from ‘the mother country’ and not about Indigenous Australia or the experiences of migrants who were not white. I think my relation to postcolonial theory might have been read different if we had read The Empire Strikes Back rather than The Empire Writes Back! Sometimes it takes a while to realize what we have been taught and what not; who we have been taught by and who not. I was tutored by whiteness: in fact I have never been taught by anyone who was not white. I was tutored; surrounded.

But then in the second year of my PhD I read a series of texts by black feminists and feminists of colour (including Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa) as well as Stuart Hall’s ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora.’ These words changed everything. These texts were to become my life long companions.

Before then I was reading so many texts, as you do. I enjoyed them; I talked with and through them; I had arguments over coffee with my fellow students about them. They were like things I picked up, in order to put them down, so I could move on to the next, ready to repeat the process again. But ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ made a connection that has stayed with me, wherever I go, as an academic but also as a person. And it mattered because the ideas presented came home. Stuart Hall’s description of identity as a site of struggle, culture as something alive and dynamic, made sense not only as an argument about something but because they connected to a world I was in; where I found myself.

Hall notes in this essay: ‘I was born into and spent my childhood and adolescence in a lower middle-class family in Jamaica. I have lived all my adult life in England, in the shadow of the black diaspora – ‘in the belly of the beast’, I write against the background of a lifetime’s work in cultural studies. If the paper seems preoccupied with the diaspora experience and its narratives of displacement, it is worth remembering that all discourse is “placed,” and the heart has its reasons’.[3]

‘The belly of the beat’ and the ‘heart has its reasons’: perhaps here, in a turn of phrase, Hall explains a preoccupation, diaspora, where you are, as what matters, how you are touched or reached.  The heart, the belly: the very organs that allow blood to be pumped or food to be digested through the body, for the body. Hall is probably not often addressed as a theorist of emotion (the way say Raymond Williams was with his attention to ‘structures of feeling’) but emotion registers everywhere in his work as a way a body is met by a world. He said once: ‘the task of socialism today is to meet people where they are, where they are touched, moved, bitten, frustated.’[4] The task for socialism is to move us, to touch in the places that hurt, that express a rage with what is, a longing for what could be.

Where they are touched: a meeting can a profoundly unfriendly even hostile greeting; a Black body in a white neighborhood, a brown body in that same neighborhood  How we are met by the world: how we arrive, how we get on, how we move on: all of these life questions are what cultural studies in Stuart Hall’s hands throws up into the air. So many histories are at stake in the minute detail of an encounter; in the diaspora an encounter with another is an encounter with many.

A text becomes a companion when it allows you to meet yourself in a different way. Stuart Hall’s work allowed me to think of how my own experience as a daughter of a Pakistani migrant, who was brought up in a mixed family in a very white part of Australia. It taught me to think from that experience about identity; it taught me to appreciate how some of my own experiences gave me the ground to do intellectual work. Companion texts are homing devices, ways of re-orientating our relation to our homes, ways of returning home, ways of moving home.

Both Angela Davis and Stuart Hall made me aware of what it means to take race seriously as an object of thought. Claire Alexander offers an illuminating account of Stuart Hall’s work on race, placing it within a trajectory of his lifetime’s labor. She notes how Hall’s writings ‘reflect and define’ transitions in his ‘personal identity’, as well as the unfolding and multiple contexts in which he is writing. She cites Hall via Grossberg: ‘I have never worked on race and ethnicity as a kind of subcategory; I have always worked on the whole social formation which is racialised’ [5]. This is so important: to work on race as to show how race is precisely not something particular but general; how race is not just here or there but everywhere, at stake in the shaping of the social as such. Often those of us of colour are assumed to embody race, what Hall called, as have other, that burden of representation. Then, race comes and goes when we do; race becomes the responsibility of those who are not white; what needs dismantling is what stays in place. Hall teaches us how foregrounding race is to offer a different account of the ground, of modernity and its relation to slavery and empire, of our understanding of histories and futures that are never simply behind or in front of us. We disturb the ground. We work from the ground.

I take seriously Stuart Hall’s suggestion that we need to work where we are—but where we are, as he shows, is a complicated matter. If you arrive and you are not expected to be here, are not from here, or are deemed not from here, then the world itself can appear rather oblique. Over time, with more courage, more conviction, I began to think of how cultural studies provides the tools to interrogate the university as a place to work on as well as work at.

Of course, Stuart Hall was here before. In an early paper, ‘Deviancy, Politics and the Media’, Hall interrogates how the media reported two incidents of student radicalism at universities—one from 1969 at the London School of Economics and the other at Birmingham University in 1968 [5]. He shows with remarkable patience how both incidents are framed through the use of the minority/majority distinction, a framing that allows the student protesters to be identified as a selfish group, as the source of danger and the disruption. Indeed, when reading this paper, I realised how some of my own arguments about the uses of willfulness as a frame directly relate to Hall’s 1971 paper. In Willful Subjects, I explore how student protest becomes dismissible as a symptom of a particular, immature and destructive will, a will defined against the general will.8 The particular will/general will distinction operates in a similar way to the minority/majority distinction interrogated so much earlier by Hall. And in my current project on complaint, I am again exploring how danger and disruption are located. Students who complain about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by members of staff are often positioned as the ones who ‘disrupt’ the educational experience; complaint as disruption.

A label can be what you receive because of what you expose. Techniques for labeling students, as Hall shows, do something. Through framing the students as a selfish minority imposing their will on others and depriving others of an education, education becomes aligned with a majority, those whose interests cohere or become coherent. Hall thus shows how the structure of social relations works to ‘establish, maintain and preserve certain meaning systems in being, generating around them a certain stable, taken for granted world’ [6]. Phenomenology helps us to reflect on the ‘taken for granted world’ as a world that does not come into view. In this essay, Hall does engage with phenomenology (through the work of sociologists of knowledge who drew on phenomenology such as Berger and Luckmann) in order to attend to the ‘question of meaning’. In some of my own work, I have adopted a framework I call practical phenomenology, which, though not directly inspired by an engagement with Hall’s work, nonetheless inherits from it in important ways. Hall’s insistent refusal to separate the subjective from the structural would be a starting point for a practical phenomenology.

Why practical phenomenology? The practical effort to transform a world allows us to know that world in a different way. This is what I learnt from doing ethnographic research on diversity within universities. Diversity practitioners know a lot about how universities operate because of the difficulties they encounter.  One practitioner described her work ‘it’s a banging your head against the brick wall job’. A job description becomes a wall description. When we try to challenge histories that have sedimented, we encounter those histories: they become hard as walls.

And if you arrive here, without being from here, walls come up too, ways in which residence is questioned. Diversity work can be the attempt to open up universities to populations that have historically been excluded from them. As I explore in Living a Feminist Life, diversity work can also be the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. A life description can be a wall description. Questions can hover around, a murmuring, an audible rising of volume that seems to accompany an arrival of a brown or black body. Are you the professor? Really, are you sure? Cultural Studies as a discipline begins with the lived experiences of not residing, of not being received ‘well’ by where you end up, experiences of working class kids ending up in elite institutions, experiences of diasporic kids ending up in those same institutions. When you don’t fit, you fidget. How quickly the fidgeting body appears as not residing in the right place. Eyebrows are raised. Really; really? Are you sure?

What I am calling diversity work involves transforming questions into a catalogue. A catalogue does not assume each question as the same question: but it is a way of hearing continuities and resonances. It is a way of thinking of how questions accumulate; how they have a cumulative effect on those who receive them. You can be worn down by the requirement to give answers, to explain yourself. It is not a melancholic task; to catalogue these questions, even if some of the questions are experienced as traumatic, difficult, or exhausting. To account for experiences of not being given residence is not only a sad political lesson, a lesson of what we have had to give up in order to keep going but it is we come to know stuff. Think of how much we know about institutional life because of these failures of residence: of how the categories in which we are immersed become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them. When we do not recede into the background, when we stand out or stand apart, we can bring the background into the front: and we can front up to how much depends on your background.

The corpus of Hall’s work transformed into pedagogy: how a world can be made to reappear from the effort to be in a world that does not accommodate you, or from the effort to transform a world that does not accommodate you.

We learn from what we come up against.

Maybe I wasn’t tutored only by whiteness after all.

Stuart Hall was not my teacher. I only ever once spoke to him once and that was to thank him for his work.

Stuart Hall is my teacher. His words spoke to me. His words teach me.

[1] I was invited to write a response to Hall for an edited book on Hall’s legacies. For complicated reasons, it was not possible to proceed to publication so I am sharing the response here instead. With thanks to colleagues for the invitation to think about an inspiration.

[2] Hall, Stuart (1992). ‘Cultural Studies: Theoretical Legacies,’ in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula Riechler (eds). Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, p.286.

[3] Stuart Hall (1990) ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart, p.223.

[4] Cited in James Proctor (2004). Stuart Hall, London: Routledge. p. 19.

[5] Claire Alexander (2011) ‘Introduction’ to Claire Alexander (ed). Stuart Hall and Race. London: Routledge. p.13.

[6] Stuart Hall (1971). ‘Deviancy, Politics and the Media,’ Stencilled Occasional Papers, http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-artslaw/history/cccs/stencilled-occasional-papers/1to8and11to24and38to48/SOP11.pdf.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s